Monday, December 5, 2011

Responsibility Versus Accountability

I choose to be responsible rather than accountable.  The reason is in the very etymology of the words.  Accountable is built around the verb “to count” and ascribes reality to abstract numbers, that which can be counted (and is therefore what “counts.”)   Responsibility is built around the verb “to respond.”  The ability to respond is critical in human contexts like education, and is what really counts.  
There is a fundamental conflict here: the imposition of accountability results in less collective responsibility.   The fate of De La Cruz Middle School in Chicago illustrates the conflict, where emphasis on numbers destroyed a learning community where people took collective responsibility for student success:
Anyone who visited us commented on what a wonderful place it was. Unfortunately, the only person from CPS to come visit us was the numbers guy, whose job it was to calculate "space utilization….When the numbers guy completed his report, he said we were at 61% utilization. His calculations, he admitted later, were incorrect and we were actually near 70% utilization, but that is a different story for a different time.
Long story short, all those wonderful things we were doing did not matter to CPS. Our student improvement didn’t matter to CPS. Our organic “longer day” that we had didn’t matter to CPS. Our students and community didn’t matter to CPS.
This occurred in a context of privatization and neo-liberal “reforms” which have been going on in Chicago for twenty years.  I live in Vermont, and I believe that this extreme case is instructive for us in our rural context.  People matter, and we need to fight against any trend towards dehumanizing our educational institutions, because in so doing we hurt our communities.  Responsibility is built on the belief that we can be better than we are.
Ironically, while a misplaced emphasis on accountability diminishes responsibility, increased collective responsibility creates greater achievement as a byproduct.  At De La Cruz
Student achievement had been on the rise for years; we ran one of the first true middle school programs in the city, where our students would switch classes to be taught by subject area experts and in the process they gained valuable experience for high school. Through a lot of hard work by students and staff alike, we gained certification for the AVID program. We passed the ISBE Special Education Audit, and the auditor told us that we had one of the “best special education programs she had seen.”
Isn’t this the very picture of (good) accountability as well as responsibility?  Here in Vermont, I have the privilege of working at the Sharon Elementary School, where there is a powerful sense of shared responsibility among staff, parents, students, and the community.  Suffice to say that this school is among the 28% of Vermont schools that made AYP this year - not the essence of the matter, but a useful byproduct.
In order to clarify my own thinking, I made up a chart comparing responsibility and accountability.
Responsibility – all are jointly and severally responsible for the success of the endeavor
Accountability – one is accountable to “higher ups”, taxpayers,  whatever
Deductive – starts with principles and aspirations of the community and builds out from that, standards driven
Inductive – constructs reality like a numerical jigsaw puzzle, data driven
Qualifies – seeks and accepts a broad range of evidence for great student learning.  Looks for connections between the evidence
Quantifies – what counts are the things you can count
Collaborative – interest based
Adversarial – positional/distributive
Intrinsic motivators
Extrinsic motivators “carrots and sticks”
Facilitation – seeks levers to amplify intrinsic motivation
Supervision – manages the carrots and sticks
Flat structures – lots of collateral circulation
Hierarchical – decisions flow down from the top
Sharing  of information
Control of information
The whole is greater than the sum of the parts
Zero sum – if you win, I lose
Influence over collectively shared aspirations
Power over people
The buck stops here
The buck stops someplace else

Responsibility represents our best aspirations for our schools, our communities and our children.  Why is it so hard to achieve?  Responsibility is cognitively demanding - it requires intelligence.  To those who are unable to grasp the nuances of education, accountability is the easier choice.  It doesn’t follow that it is the best choice.
We are people, not numbers.

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